Nuclear weapons and oil shale (Tech Talk)

There is a distinct possibility that we will see the global supply of oil begin to decline within the next decade. In fact the drop may come significantly quicker than some have previously predicted. As Dr. James Schlesinger, the first Secretary of Energy once noted, the American public operates in either Complacent or Panic mode. Given that we may soon reach the latter condition, it could be that we may need access to all that oil locked up in the oil shale somewhat sooner than Shell might get it out (and I'll cover that in a later post). The Administration should, therefore, have a crash plan available in case that need becomes critical. This post is written in that vein. Now before I get into the piece that follows I should explain that I don't hold any particular animus towards the states of Colorado, Utah, Wyoming or Idaho, and so when I start talking about disposing of nuclear weapons in those states by making use of them it should be taken as merely a technical discussion (grin).

(Previous talks in this series can be found at this link.)

The need for a relatively rapidly available resource to allow us to continue being able to supply the world's needs for oil, even as it increases into the future, will require some fairly rapid and agile production of resources, and as I noted in the first post of this series, with some 2 trillion extractable barrels of oil locked up in the oil shales of the above four states, there lies a potential answer to the problem. But conventional means for extraction, particularly because of the levels of capital required, and other issues that I will discuss later, make it unlikely that these normal means will produce any significant impact on the gap in economic supply that will develop in the near future. The use of nuclear explosives has the potential to solve that problem. And to explain rather simply how this might be done (as with the other techie talks), I will explain how, conceptually, this might be achieved.

The papers that I am going to take the concepts from were given at the second and third oil shale symposia and are listed at the end of the post. They describe the application of results from over 150 underground nuclear detonations which were carried out as the United States sought to find peaceful uses for nuclear explosives as part of the Plowshare Program. I will also be using 1960's costs since these were used in the papers.

To set the stage, as I have described earlier, the Western oil shales occur in rock with almost no permeability, and the kerogen that is in the rock will, under normal conditions, stay there, rather than flowing even when it has the chance. So if the oil (kerogen) is to be recovered two things will be needed. The first is a way of massively fracturing the rock, and the second is the maintenance of some level of heating to liquefy the oil, and then to keep it flowing. Large scale fracture of the rock will, in turn, require the application of massive levels of energy, and here nuclear explosives are in a class of their own. Explosive yields are usually given in kilotons, where a kiloton has the effective energy in a thousand tons of TNT. (A ton of TNT has an energy content of 4,184 Megajoules). At the same time the devices themselves are relatively small. A 250 KT device would be around 20 inches in diameter and about two to four times that long. The cost to place it, and the device itself, was estimated to be around $500,000 in 1965.

The oil shale layers are about 2,000 ft thick, and under an additional cover of 1,000 ft of overlying rock (overburden to mining engineers). If a 250 KT device were placed at the bottom of the shale layer, therefore, and detonated, it could be expected to create a cavity that would be around 400 ft in diameter. Much of the radioactive material generated (anticipated to be tritium) would be fused into the wall of the cavity, or caught in the gas that could be drawn off and collected through the boreholes subsequently used to take advantage of the blast.

The shock wave from the event is anticipated to create damaging surface motion to a distance of 2 miles or so, and be substantially disturbing to 6 miles, however, for our purpose, in the immediate vicinity of the blast it will induce significant fractures in the surrounding, and overlying rock. This will cause the rock immediately over the blasted cavity to collapse, and to fall in until a chimney of broken rock has been formed. This chimney will grow upwards until the bulking of the rock as it breaks (that gain of 60% I mentioned last post) fills the space available. For the 250 KT shot this chimney is estimated to be around 1,000 ft high. Experience suggests that the blocks will break into pieces up to 3-ft in size, though the collapse and internal fracturing may increase their ignition potential. The rock surrounding the cavity will, for a distance of around 3-cavity diameters, be fractured with a permeability of up to 1 darcy. (The Ghawar field in Saudi Arabia has an average permeability of 617 millidarcies). Beyond that range, and out to about 6 to 8 radii, the rock will continue to be fractured, but with fractures more widely spaced and less useful.

Thus, if the entire area is to be treated, then shots would need to be fired around 3 - 4 cavity radii apart in order to maximize the break-up of the rock. (Say for our hypothetical model this would be around 750 ft). By drilling sets of 5 shot holes to create individual retorts, and grouping these in sets of four, to create a "plant," we could create a production operation for the recovery of the oil. Depending on whether the intent is to optimize the fragmentation of the rock, or the fracturing of the surrounding rock with the patterns, some 240,000,000 to 1,000,000,000 cubic feet of rock will be broken per shot, at a cost of $0.015 to $0.05 per ton.

Which brings up the second advantage of nuclear explosives. About 2.5 months after the shot, the temperature at the wall of the cavity will still be around 1,000 degrees F, and some 11 months after the shot it will be around 180 degrees. Since the only place for this heat to go is into the surrounding rock, it will cook the kerogen in the vicinity into oil, with, at the sustaining temperature, a low enough viscosity that it will flow into any adjacent collection point.

And it is here that the advances of the past 40-years come into play, since oil drilling is now capable of drilling a "bottle brush" collection pattern under the cavity in order to access and collect the oil (and some water) as it drains down through the fractures. However drilling will also be required to feed air into the chimney and to turn it into a large-scale retort to complete the transition of the kerogen in the vicinity to oil, and to mobilize it. Based on USBM experiments, some 75-90% of the oil in the shale can be recovered from such an in-situ retort. Where necessary, some of the gas produced may also be used, in the later stages of the upward progression of the fire front, to enhance the strength of the fire front and to ensure that it continues to move up through the shale, not only in the chimney, but then also into the overlying and surrounding rock. (The fire can be controlled to either burn up or down what now becomes an extremely large retort).

Using this technique and applying it to each of the plants, that I have just described, it is anticipated that each plant, which would cover an area about a mile in diameter, would produce some 450 million barrels of oil over twelve years, at a production rate per day of 100,000 barrels, assuming a 75% recovery of the oil over the 2,000 ft interval. It is anticipated that with a feed of around 3,000 cfm/ton of air at 50 psi, that the flame front could progress at a speed of between 1 and 2 ft per day. In 1965 dollars, it was anticipated that the operation could make a profit if the oil were then sold to a refinery at a cost of $1.50 a barrel. Oil recovery would, however, be controlled by the quantity of oil in each "retort" layer, and, by the nature of the operation, all the oil would be anticipated to be recovered but at the rate controlled by the layers as they produced. However the process is considered economic for oil shale at grades above 15 gallons/ton with thicknesses of greater than 400 ft.

So just think, when we talk about "the nuclear option" in future, we may have an entirely different concept in mind (/grin).

(Note that, for consistency I changed some of the numbers to reflect use in the 2,000 ft shale column, rather than the 1,000 ft used in some of the example calculations in the papers).

Reference papers for this post are:

M.A. Lekas and H.C. Carpenter "Fracturing Oil Shale with Nuclear Explosives for In-Situ Retorting", 2nd Symposium on Oil Shale, CSM, 1965.

H.F. Coffer and E.R. Spiess "Commercial Applications of Nuclear Explosives, the Answer to Oil Shale?", 3rd Symposium on Oil Shale, CSM, 1966.

M.E. Lekas "Economics of Producing Shale Oil, the Nuclear In-Situ Retorting Method," 3rd Symposium on Oil Shale, CSM, 1966.

"much of the radiation" pretty much makes this an interesting but unrealistic point.

An addict will try just about anything to get his fix.

Anything may just about sum it up.

I want to make it clear that I am not endorsing this idea,but it appears that other than possible radiation leakage thru the overburden into the atmosphere or into ground water near the surface, it might actually work.

My knowlege of nuclear bombs is pretty skimpy, but I seem to remember reading that the designs can be tweaked to maximize either radiation of blast.

Just how far this proposal might be taken is anybody's guess.

Mine is that so long as tsis not in tf, it's a total nonstarter.

I don't have any trouble whatsoever, on the other hand , in imagining circumstances arising such that such a program might be undertaken.

Given the right mix of overwhelming problems, such as might convince tptb that it is something of this sort or collapse , I think it is altogether possible that this proposal may be put to the test someday.

I guess this would be preferable to setting the damn things off over cities. That's about the best I can say for it.


Well said, and pretty much my thoughts exactly, if it comes down to an "us or them " scenario.

We need to also keep in mind that there are other powers on this planet who have nukes and who may not be as cautious as we are in respect to environmental concerns.

India or China for instance might have a go at this.

I'm pretty much addicted to civilization. At this point in time the cost of energy to maintain civilization is about 10 cents a KWh (or less) delivered. Figure (roughly) about 2 to 3 cents per megajoule. Oh yeah - the delivery must be continuous unless you have storage (oil tanks, gas tanks, hydro storage for electricity [for now]).

Solar can make a difference only at the margins (peak shaving) and even then you need back up plants that can supply the peaks when solar is not available. Wind (although lower in cost than solar) is not even in the running due to its total unpredictability.

Now if we had cheap wind that could be converted to liquid fuels at low enough cost (there is the rub) we might have something. Then the intermittent nature of the wind wouldn't be a drawback.

This nuke plan is like pissing down your milkshake straw to get the last little bit of shake out. Yeah you'll rinse it out, but will you want to drink it?

Didn't we have this conversation before? Why not cook the shell with wind power and use the nukes as breeder fuel in a thorium cycle?

I hate to rain on the parade but there are certain consequences when one heats hydrocarbons in situ. For example:,_Pennsylvania

I'd like to believe that the nuclear method can be made to work perfectly without danger of significant oxygen exposure and ignition. I'd also like to believe in Santa Claus and honest politicians. Neither have been in evidence since I was 9.

Thanks for those links. I knew about Centralia but the "Gates to Hell" event I sure didn't. Wiki has a short article on it

Confirms my theory - Every solution has a problem. We are solving ourselves to extinction. We are playing experiments with the natural world which gives us life - for what, so we can still live in a way that humans have lived in only one century out of hundreds of thousands of years. Are we so special that we should take such risks with the world? Spoiled yes, but so special that we deserve BAU?

Much of the radioactive material generated (anticipated to be tritium) would be fused into the wall of the cavity, or caught in the gas that could be drawn off and collected through the boreholes subsequently used to take advantage of the blast.

...and then do what with it? Just curious.

If the sky is the limit then why not take those nuclear devices and use them on the political/military infrastructure of an oil rich country, or all of them, and then help yourself to their easy, sweet crude? You'd also cut global population a bit and some of those cute little tactical nukes are not that dirty in terms of fallout ...oh, seriously, this line of inquiry, nuking for oil, it smacks of mental illness.

this line of inquiry, nuking for oil, it smacks of mental illness.

I think that about sums it up.

I must admit that on reading this story, interesting as it is (because there is some technical feasibility), reminded me of the plan to use nukes to control AGW by dispersing dust in the upper atmosphere, or the plan a couple of years ago to use nuke power to make syncrude from the tar sands in Canada. I wonder what the EROI of nuke powered syncrude from shale would be?

What you thought that was gone? Think again :)

They still want to build nukes... but now under the guise of simply meeting electrical "demand" without having to resort to coal. Noble goal on the surface... but we all know what's happening underneath.


Thanks for a good sunday morning laugh....

Ever heard of the "Downwinders"? Lots of folks in Utah, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico died, and are still dying, as a consequence of the nuclear "testing" that took place in Nevada during the 50's and early 60's. Lots of rare and unusual cancers. If you'd like to be run out of town on a rail, or maybe just hung, make your proposal down here in Wayne County, Utah. Know you're just kidding, but we're not. Best from the Fremont

Sadly if this can be done it shall be done. Re: residual radiation, it will not be considered a defect. Research and consider the use of DU in the ME and Afganistan.

The American holy cow (aka automobile) has to fed no matter what. If nuclear blasts help so much so better. To hell with the environment and health issues!

There are a lot of health issues that arise from the lack of automobiles. Probably bigger than the detriments created by autos.

Civilization is like breath. No one misses it until there is a shortage.

Out of curiousity, what are those issues? I understand that even early cars were a significant improvement over the horse emmissions-wise (in cities) but I don't see how cars have any health benefits of their own.

Horse poop in city streets can be unpleasant to smell and might even have some germs that are human transmittable, but in parts of the world smart people had workers who scooped it up to cart to the farms for fertilizer. I cannot see that risking global climate change by our auto dependent life style is worth doing so no one has to step in some manure once in a while. Frankly as a rural gardener I find the smell of manure a healthy smell - it speaks to me of nutrition for my plants, while the smell of auto exhaust nauseates me.

"Automobiles" is the the same thing as "civilization".

Depleted uranium is 99.5+% U-238 which has a half-life of 4.468 billion years. It is not very radioactive. Compare this to some isotopes of Radon with half-lifes in days or hours.

It is toxic however. "The chemical toxicity of depleted uranium is about a million times greater in vivo than its radiological hazard." - Miller, A.C. (2002) "Depleted uranium-catalyzed oxidative DNA damage: absence of significant alpha particle decay," Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry, 91, pp. 246-252; PMID 12121782.

Edward Teller tried it. Nuclear bomb + oil shale = unburnable radioactive gas.

Operation Gasbuggy-Double Failure

okay, okay -- so before everybody's ass falls off from laughing too much, let's at least consider the possibility of this argument having some merit.... first of all, the underground nuclear tests of yesteryear were done with the nukes of yesteryear. The fallout produced from these explosions came from devices designed to produce maximum destruction to human cities populated by thousands and thousands of human beings. Since that time, nuclear energy research has progressed tremendously and the possibilities of using nuclear energy for peaceful means has come to the forefront of our national energy debate. Secondly, consider the fact that the dangerous fallout from the H bomb comes not from the nuclear fusion reaction, but only from the fission explosion that was necessary to create the conditions necessary for a fusion chain reaction to occur. I am sure that with todays high level research in nuclear energy there can be found a way to initiate a hydrogen fusion explosion underground without using nuclear fission. Heck, we already know how to create nuclear fusion controllably in a tokamak or countless other fusion devices, and the only reason we don't have fusion power plants popping up all over the place is that we still haven't figured out how to make the "EROI" great than 1.0. In this case EROI isn't an issue because the energy return includes not just the fusion power produced but also the oil that becomes accessible afterward. Why don't we put the guys at Lawrence Livermore or Los Alamos on task to invent limited nuclear explosions underground using only fusion energy, no plutonium or uranium or any of that stuff, and see if we can apply it on a large scale to fracking oil shale? Seriously, folks!

or alternatively is it possible to build a nuclear power plant adjacent to a shale oil field and use the plant to produce the huge amounts of superheated water necessary to do the fracking in a more conventional way?

Quote: ".... can be found a way to initiate a hydrogen fusion explosion underground without using nuclear fission". This is not possible because to fuse hydrogen atoms one needs a few million degrees of heat. Cold Fusion is science fiction since The Strong Force binding the nuclei can only be overcome with an equal strong force, either billions of psi of pressure (not possible now) or a temperature of some millions of degrees presently generated by a group of lasers.

Quote: "...we already know how to create nuclear fusion controllable in a tokamak or countless other fusion devices". We do only know this theoretically. The largest current experiment is the Joint European Torus (JET) where fusion was sustained for 0.5 seconds using a deuterium-tritium reaction process with a tiny, tiny amount of material. An experimental reactor named ITER is about to be tested and expectations are that fusion will be extended to 1-2 minutes. We are decades away from a power plant.

first of all, the underground nuclear tests of yesteryear were done with the nukes of yesteryear. The fallout produced from these explosions came from devices designed to produce maximum destruction to human cities

Theres a bit of truth to that, to the extent that high yield weapons, are fission/fusion/fission weapons. The fission (A-bomb) a few kilotons is used to heat/compress the fusion materials. The fusion reaction produces a lot of fast neutrons, and the yield is typically enhanced by making the casing out of depleted Uranium, which absorbs the fusion generated neutrons and fissions. If you went to only fission/fusion, the bomb wouldn't be as dirty.

I am sure that with todays high level research in nuclear energy there can be found a way to initiate a hydrogen fusion explosion underground without using nuclear fission. Heck, we already know how to create nuclear fusion controllably in a tokamak or countless other fusion devices,

Actually, we don't have a handle on how to do that. Laser fusion may be approaching the point where tiny targets can be (fusion) ignited, but I hardly think this can be scaled to a fusion only bomb. In any case fusion (depending upon what elements/isotopes are used) creates high energy alpha particles, and neutrons, which will react with the surrounding materials, some of these reactions will create new radiaoactive stuff.

Now the real difference between this an early bomb testing, is the depth that the devices are emplaced at. For a weapons test you save money, and make the gathering of data easier by drilling only as deeply as needed for containment. They didn't always get it deep enough. Here youd be much deeper, so the chance of a blowout should be eliminated. Still you got a lot of radiative byproducts in your fragmented rock. I think the project makes real sense, and can be done safely -with one rather large proviso: Don't tap the formation for hydrocarbons until the radiactivity has decayed away. The problem here is we have to wait centuries/millenia (almost nothing in terms of geologic time, but way too long to save BAU).

just stick the warheads into some more conventional power plant seems a better use...

rich, I hate to rain on this parade, but even pure (no fission trigger) fusion reactions produce a neutron flux, no? If so, said neutrons will interact with the rock. This causes what is known as "neutron activation" of the elements with acceptable neutron cross sections (units of barns). Then, those now radioactive, hot host rocks will lose (by leaching) some portion of the now-radioactive soluble elements into the now-cooked oil. A lot of these elements have short half-lives, like Na-22, so just allowing the oil to sit around for awhile will help "cool it". Perhaps, at some added expense, the offending radioisotopes could be selectively removed before or even during oil refinement.

Then again, maybe offering the motoring public radioactive syn-fuel would make them think twice about continuing their car culture?

Edit: Used "elements" above when isotopes is the more correct but perhaps less well recognized term.

This post looks like a desperate attempt to maintain BAU.

Never happen, even in a crisis. It is still a democracy, somewhat.

That is only if you got to know that this is gonna happen.

Nukes for 100,000 barrels a day ?!

Well interesting chain reaction you initiated. Congrats!

Neglecting the radiation hazard, here is why this probably would not work:

1. Nuclear reactions create temeratures on the order of a million deg. F and several times that. The blast zone may be fractured, but much of the rock near the center would be fused glass and probably have 0 permeability.

2. The THAI process as used in Alberta tar sands extraction produces huge amounts of oxides of nitrogen, which must be incinerated using natural gas, besides releasing CO2 from the consuming of 20 to 25% of the oil in the underground burning/heating process. Your underground retort process for kerogen from shale (I refuse to call it oil) is the same thing. Why have this much more green house gases produced when one can mine the shale (actually marl stone) and have no NOX and little CO2? Saving capital would be minuscule compared to envorinmental damage caused by this Nukem plan.

3. This would be a gross waste of nuclear material. Better to take the U-238 and put that in a nuclear power plant reactor that can produce electricity for powering electric cars, trains and trolley buses.

Sounds desperate. I guess people will do anything for a potato or a gallon of fuel.

What about the heat wave? When a nuclear explosion happens energy escapes in various directions in various forms. One of these forms is heat waves. It is capable of burning anything inflammable. Wouldn't it burn the organic (that is inflammable) shale?

I read a usa's govt's 1960s manual of what to do in a nuclear explosion if you are caught in one. It says that contrary to popular beliefs the bulk of the energy and therefore the damage in a nuclear explosion is not due to radiation, it is due to heat waves. Most of the victims of two nuclear explosions in japan suffered by burning, radiation is a slow and relatively insignificant matter immediately after the blast and for some years until the next generation is borned.

I don't know whether the heat waves can pass through rocks. I don't find any reason they can't. Heat waves can pass through air, that is what happened in japan and air is a bad conductor of heat. Rocks on the other hand are good conductor of heat.

I don't know whether I am raising a valid point but I think it worth investigating.

Wisdom, Always enjoy your posts and are thrilled that we have a pakistani point of view here. My logic tells me that he heat waves put out in a nuclear explosion are primarily spread by heat radiation rather than heat conduction or convection. This is easy through air but near impossible through solids.
This is why you can approach a very hot fire if you have a solid shield in front of you. It means here would be very little spread of heat beyond the local vicinity from a nuclear explosion. It is, of course, and will always be, a stupid idea for many of the previously mentioned reasons. We need to figure out how to get beyond fossil fuels, not how to increase our dependance. Imagine ramping up this tech and then running out when we are 10 billion people and 120 million barrels a day. Would just make the cliff steeper.

The heat wave is still radiation, just in the form of "heat" (a different part of the EM spectrum). Study basic thermodynamics (heat transfer: conduction, convection, radiation). Rocks are an effective sheild to radiation and usually poor conductors of heat. Molten rock is convection.

Thermal conductivity of rock = 2 Watts per deg C per sq meter.
Therm conductivity=2W/dC/M sq

OK . . . oil is getting really hard to find and people like Matt Simmons say it should go for $200/barrel to keep up the needed investments to keep getting oil. Doesn't that just mean that the oil age is coming to close?

If oil is $200/barrel wouldn't we just build several massive coal-to-liquids plants and start making liquid fuel that way since it would be much cheaper?

I realize that it will be an environmental disaster and I hate the prospect of it . . . but I also understand human nature. If people have to choose between $8/gallon gasoline or a massive toxic pit in Montana, I'm sure they'll opt for the latter. What am I missing here?

As far as economics is concerned (that is if you have the heart of ignoring all the ethical issues), you failed to add the medical costs of the sufferers of cancer and other radiation related diseases, most of the sufferers being the miners (you can't do it all by machines, at some point some where you have to send people to mine, to control and repair machines etc) you have to provide them some kind of insurance for work related injuries and diseases.

Hmm, and when the contaminated oil burns in cars in major cities crowded with people on top of people for 100+ storeys what happen?

Thank you Dr. Swift. And if it doesn't succeed, we can go back to your earlier proposal for making productive use of excess babies.

As much as I generally approve of using high explosives to solve problems, this idea is a non-starter. As suggested, better to use fission to prodiuce hot water for processing.

As far as appeal to authority, James Schlesinger's track record hardly seems to make him the "go to guy".

Come to think of it, maybe we should stick with our strengths.
If there is one thing the US is good at, it is blowing up things.
It's the 'Merikan thing to do- and praise Jesus!

H.O. the possibility you describe is a brilliant example of what James Burke was talking about in his Connections programs. Motivations in one era lead to technologies that shape the environment of the next.

I have worked briefly at two underground coal mines, and have seen how much R&D effort is evident in the mining equipment and methods used, that being the bare minimum possible. Mining is thought of as a cost that must be minimized, so that the resource can be directed to a 'higher purpose', like building nuclear bombs.

If a small fraction of the effort that has been expended on defense over the past 3 decades was spent on improved underground mining equipment and methods, this kind of idea would not need to be considered. It should be possible to continuously mine shale and coal, bring it to the surface for processing, and return the tailings for backfill without sending men underground. Where are the NASA and DARPA engineers in this effort, thinking about energy security, or still dreaming about going to Mars? Why is the Big Dog robot an army project while miners risk their necks just as much as soldiers?

I think that from an environmental perspective, there is no good alternative to shale or oil-sand extraction in an extraction plant. Oil-sand tailings is squeaky clean compared to the crud that will be left behind by any imaginable in-situ method. We need a 'Manhattan Project' for continuous underground mining equipment.

I will have my comment on the current status of continuously mining the shale next time. I agree with you wholeheartedly on the poor status of mining research. It was where, for a while, I tried to lead my research team, but there was too little money or interest available, and so we moved into other things.

There have been lots of good ideas tried, but the records of that work are rapidly disappearing into the trash around the world, as the offices are now filled with another generation with other interests.

I agree with you wholeheartedly on the poor status of mining research. It was where, for a while, I tried to lead my research team, but there was too little money or interest available, and so we moved into other things.

Heading Out -- That is the real problem with the prospects for oil shale in the US. The government has no money left, and no real interest in it.

It is probably not generally known, but the Alberta government spent on the order of $1 billion to develop the SAGD in-situ process for producing oil sands. I was involved in a little $50 million research project funded 50/50 government/corporate, and while we had a lot of fun and learned a lot of interesting things, our idea (a variant on fireflood) didn't work very well. Fortunately, SAGD turned out to be the best thing to be invented since sliced bread.

It's like the lottery, you don't often win, but when you win, you win big. Their $1 billion expenditure allowed Alberta to add about 150 billion barrels to its oil reserves, which at current prices would worth something over $10 trillion (trillion with a "T").

Based on my experience, I would estimate that it would take the US government about $10 billion to develop a viable process for oil shale - and they should have started 40 years go. If they started a crash program right now, I think they could have something in commercial operation about mid-century.

The nuclear oil shale idea is an illustration of the principle that, "If the only tool you have is a hammer, all your problems start to look like nails." It would be nice if the US had something other than a nuclear hammer to work with - but that's the problem with putting all your money into military spending.

There were similar to described above tests in Russia in 1960s.
Production was about 500,000 barrels of oil per nuclear weapon.
Then such production wasn't viable but in the near future it perhaps might be the way to dispose of some nuclear weapons.

you got sauce for that?

30,000 warheads in der welt.......

hold on that's... 3GB not a lot to be honest.

is there more than 3GB worth of energy to be used in a nuke power station rather than nuking the shale with said warheads?

As one who trained as an xray technician while still in high school, worked as an xray technician during medical school, had a long career as a radiologist, has spent time with Gofman, Sternglass, Bernard Cohen and T D Luckey and is familiar with the literature of radiation hormesis and some of the cancer statistics from SEER; I suspect, but cannot prove, that the dangers of low level ionizing radiation are greatly exaggerated.

Robert, you write:

I suspect, but cannot prove, that the dangers of low level ionizing radiation are greatly exaggerated.

Actually, the preponderance of the evidence is on your side. One can only 'prove' an argument. And as you well know, according to the radiation hormesis theory, a small amount of ionising radiation is actually good for you. That is to say, there in an OPTIMUM level of exposure to ionizing radiation.

"All substances are poisons; there is none which is not a poison. The right dose differentiates a poison…."

Paracelsus, 16th century.

The Gasbuggy test seems to rule out this approach:

Mattson said the explosion "created a cavity 80 feet wide and 335 feet high" which "immediately filled with natural gas." Unfortunately, he pointed out, "all of it was unusable" because "it was too radioactive."

"Project Gasbuggy stimulated gas production in greater quantities than in nearby conventional gas wells," the DOE's Web site said, "but the natural gas was also radioactive. Test results also indicated that the gas had a significantly lower heat value."

Gasbuggy stimulated unusable gas - Alamogordo Daily News

Would like to hear more from you about this, however. The impact on BTUs doesn't bode well for its utility as a fracing mechanism.

At the point we're nuking oil shale, something is seriously wrong with prevailing human narratives...

I mean, we must be... increasingly on the alert to prevent them from taking over other mineshaft space, in order to breed more prodigiously than we do, thus, knocking us out in superior numbers when we emerge! Mr. President, we must not allow... a mine shaft gap!

All this debate over whether to use fissile material from nuclear weapons as fuel for breeder reactors or detonating underground to develop in situ oil/gas/shale completely misses the point. We should be using our nuclear weapons *as intended*. To eliminate SURPLUS PEOPLE.

If we thoroughly and efficiently nuke all the world's cities and population centers above, say, ~100,000, we ought to be able to whittle down the population to a very sustainable 50-100 million worldwide. Thanks to the resulting societal and technologocal collapse that is likely to ensue, the ecological footprint from even that small remnant should be tiny. The environmental and genetic afteraffects are also likely to *keep* that population and footprint very small for many decades afterwards. This will ensure that the remaining FF will be more than enough to sustain us indefinitely --and that's assuming we haven't reverted to a completely sustainable pre-industrial civiliaztion.

A win-win for mankind and the biosphere (with some regrettable but completely manageable "collateral damage" of course)! [/snark]

I vote we use nukes to eliminate you. ;-)

Greenish, don't you think everyone in the US should be required to watch Dr. Strangelove at least once a month. The narrative is certainly wrong. I am afraid we have built a cage called "civlization" and once we locked ourselves in we began to to crazy.

It is conceivable to use a gas cooled(CO2?) nuclear reactor to heat underground retorts. They are hot enough to cook the oil shale(600 deg C). However the oil shale is part sodium or calcium carbonate which decomposes into CO2 at temperatures of 800 deg C and quick lime or lye, so heating gas that is too hot might collapse the underground retort.

Couldn't we just use the nuclear fuel to power nuclear plants to synthesize ammonia fuel for internal combustion engine vehicles? This would be a zero emission approach, much better for the environment. Or, we could just replace heating oil with electric space heating, and power ships directly on fission reactors.

I'm glad to see that the overall tenor of the reaction to this post is disdain. Something like this should and hopefully will be opposed merely for the sake of the inhabitants of the aforementioned states, (not to mention the environmental destruction).

In any case, if you're desperate to maintain BAU, it seems to me intuitively that the fissile material would be put to more efficient use charging electric cars via reactors and the grid. Maybe someone would like to run some numbers to see what the comparison is.

Heading Out,

A fascinating article. Thanks.

A pity that a number of closed minds have infested this site with their venom.

Infested? Venom?


Infested? Venom?

Those western states are pretty full of anti government liberal middle class people watching the unholy alliance of Wall St, Pennsylvania Ave and The Capitol destroy their way of life with BAU.

And then those three groups will sweet talk them into getting nuked for the common good.

Dream on baby.

That's one way to guarantee a nice venomous separatist movement.

These are some of the best comments since i started posting here. Good stuff all around. This has got to be the most boneheaded plan i've seen.

Why not go to the moon and mine Helium...?

A few decades ago, I had a burst of enthusiasm for geothermal energy. I told a friend from graduate school who worked at Los Alamos about what I was thinking and he said that Lab was already working on a better idea: Instead of looking for places where there were seeps of steam and hot water, the Lab was working of heating the rock anywhere we needed power using atomic bombs (or maybe hydrogen bombs, I don't remember for sure). Part of the pitch for bomb heated rock was that it was much faster to implement than building traditional nuclear power plants with water/steam cooled atomic reactors. He said, I think, that part of the plan was to drill into the rubble after an hot rock deposit had been depleted of heat and plant another bomb to reheat it. Thus it was, in today's jargon, sustainable. I can't say which is the wilder idea that or this kerogen cooker idea.

I question whether there are any engineering measurements on the behavior of kerogen in marl at temperatures generated by a nuclear explosion. This is just one of many unknowns, IMHO.

Dropping the nukes on other heavily populated oil consuming countries would achieve much higher EROI. As a bonus your share of other important natural resources will increase, you get to retire some debt, and there will be room for your citizens to make more babies.

Fortunately, we have plenty of nukes, so we can do both.

Why do people assume radiation will be released? IIRC underground blasts contained radiation pretty well - the available info should be good as hundreds of underground tests have been done. Why assume that the refined product is contaminated? Technology exists for relatively clean devices eg neutron bombs, also, people misconstrue the nature of radiation - control for hot particles etc, the end product should be clean, IIRC. - While there may be good policy reasons not to pursue this technology, we still benefit by having a clear, fact - based discussion. Policy concerns aside, it seems possible this would be the most cost effective, fastest way to access shale oil - off the top of my head, a 10 by 10 mile area could match Saudi Arabia in production. I think a major point of today's article is that the resource is in all likelyhood available in a cost effective manner, barring political and environmental (GW) considerations.

If I understand the "750 ft between shots" correctly, then it would take (52800^2)(750^2) ~= 5000 nuclear explosions to prime a 10x10 mile area.

Is that correct, HO?

Or 500,000 nuclear explosions to "prime" a 100 mile x 100 mile area.

WOW. And all without radiation contamination or leakage. Just pure clean oil. As if we need any more of that crap anyhow.

This just gets better and better. This has got to be the best BAU model ever.

And HO. Sorry to be so "venomous". I have been enjoying your Sunday Oil Shale Tech Reports and I appreciate the obvious effort you put into this. But oh boy, it seems that Fossil Fuel Man is gonna do anything to keep his fix and destroy the planet to get that last calorie out of the ground.

Kinda like who cut down the last old growth tree on Easter Island.

Collapse is just guaranteed if humanity goes to these lengths to keep the oil pipelines flowing. This just gets scarier and scarier.

This is a straw man argument. As I said, we benefit from a clear, fact based discussion. You call upon a false premise (the need for a 100 x 100 mile area) in order to appeal to fear, distrust of gov, etc.

Seagatherer. Hi. Disagree. That's only 100 10 x 10 mile areas. Not much land considering the extent of the oil shale deposits in the western states.

Just go check out how much land gets ripped up in huge open cut coal mines. It soon adds up.

Agree on your fact based discussion comment. The fact is it's going to mean thousands and thousands of nuclear explosions.

Does anyone really think this will go ahead without massive social upheaval (read civil war).

Sure. Let's talk about it. Great gutsy post. But the derision that it's drawing is an indicator of the depths of concern of big business and big energy and big government doing whatever they might to keep the status quo.

Scary. Very scary.

See my reply below. 100 x 100 miles is far more than would be needed for the US alone.
10 x 10 miles would require about 500 shots. A lot - but not that different from what has already been done.
I agree there would be social unrest in the area of the mining, but there is social unrest where we do mountain top removal mining of coal. You underestimate the ability of our government to manage the population (and media). Much of the local social unrest re mountain top removal you have never heard about.
That said, I wouldn't worry about this method until such time as our government and culture has painted itself into a corner - this is essentially, at this time an intellectual exercise - an interesting one.

1. The four western states together are assumed to have about 2 trillion barrels oil equivalent.
2. Let's assume Saudi Arabia's URR is about 1/6th that amount.

For a 10x10 mile square to be the equivalent of Saudi Arabia, the entire 2 T barrels must be contained in 600 square miles.

Here ( is a map of the shale regions in CO, UT & WY. Looks like it's a tad bit more than 600 sq miles, right?

The article states nothing about URR in KSA - it states 100K BPD per 1 square mile. 10 X 10 = 100 square miles = 10,000,000 barrels per day (for 12 years). KSA is approx. 9 million barrels per day.

"Technology exists for relatively clean devices eg neutron bombs, also, people misconstrue the nature of radiation"

Neutron bombs are the exact opposite. They are designed to be as lethal as possible and maximize radioactive output, while minimizing the non-radiation blast.

Neutron bombs are the cleanest bombs that have been designed, they are as close as possible to pure fusion devices. They are extremely difficult to construct. They are designed to kill living things with an initial neutron pulse, leaving as little residual radiation and blast damage as possible, so that buildings, roads etc.(infrastructure) can be taken and used by the victor. Fallout is nearly nonexistant.
Every nuclear bomb produces a neutron pulse, but normally blast and thermal effects, gamma radiation, and fission byproducts predominate. There are many ways to make a nuclear device more destructive which are much easier to accomplish, but that is not the point of a neutron bomb. The neutron bomb was not built due to it's lack of destructiveness - it was felt that its availability would make a nuclear conflict more palatable, thus more likely.
Somewhere I have a declassified treatise by the father of the neutron bomb. It is dry, technical, yet scary reading.

You are kidding us - aren't you HO?

OMG, when's it gonna end!

I agree with those who call this a non-starter. Better to use the nuclear fuel to generate electricity directly instead of creating a super-super-superfund site.

Well, most may think this is a non starter, but if Peak Oil decline is half as bad as some here think, then you should not be surprised by what actually happens to keep gas tanks full.

This was already tried twice in Colorado and once in New Mexico, albeit for natural gas, in 1967, 1969 and 1973. The New Mexico blast in 1967 was called Project Gasbuggy. The Colorado blasts were called Project Rulison and Project Rio Blanco, and they are STILL affecting those areas:

The Rio Blanco test was very secret, and there are few resources that have been unearthed describing it, other than it was the simultaneous detonation of three 33 kilioton nukes.

There was a follow on to Projects Rulison and Rio Blanco called Project Bronco that was aimed directly at releasing oil from shale. It was canceled.

I wonder if the oil and gas companies paid for this experimentation? Never mind.

From Wiki,

Project Gnome was the first nuclear test of the Plowshare program and was the first continental nuclear weapon test since Trinity to be conducted outside of the Nevada Test Site. It was tested in southeastern New Mexico, approximately 40 km (25 mi) southeast of Carlsbad, New Mexico.

The site selected for Gnome is located roughly 40 km (25 mi) southeast of Carlsbad, New Mexico in an area of salt and potash mines along with oil and gas wells.[2]

Unlike most nuclear tests which were focused on weapon development, Shot Gnome was designed to focus on scientific experiments.

* "Study the possibility of converting the heat produced by a nuclear explosion into steam for the production of electric power." [3]

* "Explore the feasibility of recovering radioisotopes for scientific and industrial applications."[4]

* "Use the high flux of neutrons produced by the detonation for a variety of measurements that would contribute to the scientific knowledge in general and to the reactor development program in particular.

I have a book from Nasco Corp. from 1966 that states that the cost of a 2 megaton bomb in 1966 was estimated to be 2.8 million dollars and the book the Money Game also goes into nuclear fracture as well. This could work esp. with the system that Raytheon come up with to retrieve shale oil.

But there are lingering concerns I mean leaded gasoline was outlawed because lead was being emitted into the air via the exhaust put out by the car. So here we have a conundrum, is it worth taking the risk of having radioisotopes “possibily” being emitted once again via exhaust? IMO the cons outweigh the benefits environmentally, but I’m sure on a marginal cost-benefit analysis it’s probably pretty economical. So we have a question of ethics over the bottom-line, and in the end the bottom-line always wins.